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Police officers settling into new roles at county schools

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Columbus high school students may just now be noticing there is a police officer on campus, full time.

Snow days and two-hour delays have resulted in few face-to-face inquiries. But at least three questions popped up from curious teens on the Columbus East website about new school resource officer Julie Quesenbery:

“What are you doing here?”

“Do you want to be here?”

“Did they stick you with us because you got into trouble?”

Quesenbery does find that last question funny. But as one of two new school resource officers assigned to Bartholomew Consolidated Schools, it’s her mission to take every student concern seriously.

Quesenbery is assigned to Columbus East, while the district’s other resource officer, Patrolman Eric Stevens, is headquartered at North.

Both have nine school buildings to cover as part of their new assignment.

For the middle schools, Stevens will work with Northside students and staff, while Quesenbery will do the same at Central.

The officers will be on call to address concerns at the elementary schools and visit with younger students at least once every nine weeks.

One step at a time

While Stevens and Quesenbery eventually will spend more time at the middle schools, they are trying to determine how much time could be spent away from North and East.

“There’s lots of things we want to do, but we’re still trying to figure out what is both feasible and practical,” said Sgt. Morgan Horner of the Columbus Police Department, who supervises the two officers and the program.

Understanding why Stevens and Quesenbery are in the public schools full time can be found with just one word in their job title: resource.

“Truly, they are a resource across the board — from administrators and staff right down to parents and the kids,” Horner said.

If a student is being bullied or threatened or sees another kid doing something dangerous, Stevens and Quesenbery are a resource they can consult, Horner said.

If parents are worried about a child’s well-being or want options on how to handle an unruly kid at home, they can now turn to one of the two officers for help, he said.

For teachers and administrators, the officers are a full-time campus resource to address anything from school bus pranks to campus access points, Horner said.

“Believe me, the teachers and administrators know what they are doing because they’ve been doing it for several years,” Stevens said.

“But what Julie and I bring is a different set of experiences that can add to their collective knowledge.”

The officers also will be a resource for law enforcement, which will now have a permanent on-campus presence to handle and follow up on school-related incidents, he said.

“While a patrolman has to move on to address different calls, the problem will still be at the school the next day, so I will make sure it is dealt with,” Stevens said.

Selection process

To answer one of the student questions, the officers aren’t being punished. They were selected through an interview process that involved school and police administrators, Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said.

“There are many characteristics of a successful SRO, but being approachable is at the top of the list,” Maddix said. “Both these officers fit that bill. And both are quick and eager to engage with students, teachers and parents in an effort to assist in any way possible.”

The officers must work collaboratively with everyone — students, staff and parents — to bring about a successful resolution to any issue, Maddix said.

But for resource officers, student safety is the No. 1 job.

Quesenbery said she is “hyper-aware” every morning of anything that might escalate into a tragedy such as the December 2012 incident in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death in a small Connecticut school.

“I have to keep thinking that what happened in Sandy Hook could happen here,” Quesenbery said.

“I hope I never become lax and think that will never happen here because I can tell you the people of Newtown never dreamed it could happen to them.”

The officers carry their service weapons and are in uniform while working at the schools. If an armed person were to emerge on campus, Stevens says, it’s clear what he and Quesenbery would have to do.

“We’d first call for help, but we won’t wait,” Stevens said. “Both Julie and I would get to the threat as quickly as possible and neutralize it.”

At the request of administrators, Stevens and Quesenbery occasionally will patrol off-campus to check out neighborhoods where students tend to congregate before and after classes, Quesenbery said.

“Safety concerns are an ever-growing creature you can’t control,” Horner said. “While there’s no way of making any school 100 percent secure, our goal is to minimize risk as much as we can.”

A student perspective

When students were asked how they felt about the presence of the two officers, many appeared uncomfortable discussing the subject.

But when a group of Columbus North students met privately with a reporter and were asked why their classmates seemed uneasy, interesting and revelations began to emerge.

“(Student resource officers) actually make many of us feel less safe,” Columbus North senior Madison Monroe said. “That’s because when students see a policeman in the halls all the time, they assume there must be something bad going on here.”

“I’ve never felt scared or threatened before, but having a policeman around all the time makes me feel unsafe being here,” North junior Gwen Kleinhenz said, adding that uneasiness works against maintaining a learning atmosphere.

“I agree with Gwen. It makes students more nervous,” junior Rosemary Yonushonis said.

While teachers and administrators may recognize the possibility of a Newtown-style tragedy happening locally, most students don’t see any of their classmates as a potential gunman, North business teacher Andy Dunn said.

“We are trained to recognize possible red flags,” Dunn said. “Students pay attention to what’s going on, but they don’t see things the same way adults do.”

Gaining student trust

There are signs the uneasbetween teens and officers may be starting to thaw.

Some students are now taking the time to pat Stevens on the back when they pass him in the hall and ask how he’s doing, according to North social studies chairwoman Libby Arthur.

He’s also been doing various favors to help teens out, such as returning a city bus pass to a student who dropped it in a parking lot, Arthur said.

Getting out among the students and establishing a positive relationship with as many as possible is the priority, Quesenbery and Stevens said.

In order to assure students it’s OK to talk to the officers, the officers are allowed to cut some slack for a young person caught breaking a minor rule.

“Since gaining a student’s trust and protecting them is such a tough line, it’s essential that each (officer) be empowered to use their own discretion,” said BCSC student assistance coordinator Larry Perkinson, who has worked several years to bring the program to Columbus.

“When I can exercise discretion, I will,” Quesenbery said. “The teens expect I’m all about getting them in trouble. But I want kids to feel they can trust me with whatever is going on in their life and that I’m going to help make it better.”

“I’m not here to be ‘Big Brother,’ and I’m not a dean, so it’s not my job to deal with discipline,” said Stevens, who believes students shouldn’t be forced to incriminate themselves for minor infractions while they are trying to warn adults of a potentially greater danger.

In other communities, the discretion given to officers, as well as their soft approach with students, sometimes is misunderstood by those who believe hard-line security measures are the only way to prevent a Columbine-style incident, Horner said.

He was referring to the 1999 shooting incident in suburban Denver’s Columbine High School, where two teenagers killed 13 people including themselves.

When police-operated resource officer programs are accused of not caring about school security because they aren’t using metal detectors or mandatory searches, that criticism can hit a raw nerve for many officers, Horner said.

“I have one child at East, another at Central, and I work with many officers who also have kids attending classes in Columbus, so why would we not want schools to be secure?” Horner asked.

“We simply have different thoughts on how we can best achieve that security.”

Mentors, not parents

While a school resource officer may occasionally act as a mother or father figure, the school corporation has no intention of subjecting the program to the ongoing debate over parenting styles, Perkinson said.

“(The school resource officer program) is not about leniency and strictness; it’s about being honest,” Perkinson said. “It’s about making connections with young people so that they will come to you with all types of concerns.”

Quesenbery said that sometimes students might not like the advice officers give.

“I’m trying to be a good mentor and give good advice, even when it’s not what a young person wants to hear,” Quesenbery said. “They may walk away not liking me, but I think they might eventually understand I did everything I could to help them.”

And while the approach may appear too soft to some people, officers are trained to know where to draw the line and not to attempt to become a student’s best friend, Horner said.

“We can ‘wishy-washy’ back and forth a little bit, but if someone mistakes Eric and Julie’s niceness and approachability for weakness, that might be a big mistake,” he said.

Perkinson added the line where leniency ends also will include any intentional act with the potential to hurt other people.

When summer vacation begins in June, Stevens and Quesenbery will work daily with Perkinson on a variety of crisis management and other safety-related plans for county schools.

As those plans are developed, the officers’ role is expected to evolve over time to address concerns, according to Perkinson and Horner.

And what about the student question about whether Quesenbery wants to be at East?

“I never imagined I’d be this happy being in the schools,” she said. “I’ll miss being out on the road at times, but I’ve never felt more in my life that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

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